Front Squats and Herniated Discs: Can They Safely Coexist?

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I suffered a herniated disc in 2004.

If I’m honest, while recovering I was constantly thinking about when I could return to training, and I’m sure it’s the same for you.

There will potentially be a stage when the pain is too intense for any form of exercise, although this does depend on the severity of the injury.

However, once things start to improve you’ll typically want to get back to the gym.

With that being said, you’ll want to avoid exercises such as back squats and deadlifts.

But, are front squats allowed or should they be avoided too?

Here’s what you need to know.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, and this information should not be interpreted as medical advice. I am a Personal Trainer who has suffered herniated discs, therefore any advice I offer is based on my recovery and recuperation. It’s crucial to consult with your doctor or a qualified physical therapist before starting any new exercise program, especially with a herniated disc.

Yes, you can front squat with a herniated disc, although this will depend on how far along you are in the recovery process. Exercise is actually good for a herniated disc, as it will help you to retrain the muscles. However, you should initially reload the spine with light activity, using bodyweight spinal stabilisation exercises. It is also important not to load weight on the back and only use exercises which help you to maintain a neutral spine. Front squats fall into this category.

Exercise is Good For a Herniated Disc

Dr. Stuart McGill: "Exercise is often the best medicine for a herniated disc, but it needs to be done correctly. Focus on core stabilization, proper form, and low-impact movements to avoid further injury."

The most important factor when it comes to attempting to exercise with a herniated disc is how much pain you’re currently in.

Then again, after seeking medical advice, you’ll also be aware of just how much damage has been done.

By this I mean that not all herniations are created equal.

Therefore, some people may be able to continue training as though nothing has really occurred.

Although, they’ll probably want to make a few adjustments here-and-there.

However, if your Doctor tells you that you’ve caused a fair amount of damage, plus you’re in extreme pain, then exercise is obviously best avoided for a while.

With that being said, exercise is actually both required and recommended for a herniated disc.

In effect, it will help you to retrain your lower back muscles.

But, this doesn’t mean that you should immediately return to lifting the same weights (or even performing the same exercises) as before.

Basically, the last thing you want to do is to start loading weight onto a back that is currently damaged.

So, in effect, back squats and deadlifts MAY need to be avoided for a while.

The reason I say “may” is again down to how serious the injury is, although there are many variations of each exercise that can be safely performed.

With that being said, your aim should be to perform exercises with a neutral spine until you are completely recovered.

And of course, back squats and deadlifts do not allow for maintaining a neutral spine.

What Exactly Are Herniated Discs?

Your spine, the core of your skeletal system, isn’t just a rigid column of bones. 

It’s supported and cushioned by intervertebral discs, which act like tiny, stacked pads between each vertebra. 

These discs are crucial for absorbing shock and enabling smooth movement in your back and neck.

Unfortunately, these vital discs can sometimes become damaged, resulting in a herniated disc. 

Simply put, a herniated disc occurs when the outer layer of the disc weakens or tears, allowing the soft jelly-like center to bulge or even leak out. 

This herniation can put pressure on nearby nerves, leading to pain, numbness, and weakness.

A Peek Inside the Disc

Think of each disc as a jelly donut. 

The tough outer layer, called the annulus fibrosus, surrounds a soft, gel-like center known as the nucleus pulposus. 

Spinal Model Demonstrating a Slipped Intervertebral Disc

This gel provides cushioning and distributes pressure evenly throughout the spine. 

However, due to aging, wear and tear, or sudden strain, the annulus can weaken or tear, allowing the jelly-like nucleus to bulge or leak out. 

This herniation can irritate nearby nerves, resulting in pain, numbness, and weakness.

Understanding the Impact

Herniated discs can occur anywhere along the spine, but they’re most common in the lower back (lumbar spine) and neck (cervical spine). 

The location and severity of the herniation determine the symptoms you experience.

Lumbar Herniation

Pain: The most common symptom is pain in the lower back, radiating down the buttocks and leg (sciatica). The pain can be sharp, shooting, or a dull ache, often worsening with bending, lifting, or coughing.

Numbness and Tingling: You may experience numbness, tingling, or weakness in the leg or foot served by the affected nerve.

Cervical Herniation

Neck Pain: Pain and stiffness in the neck are common, sometimes radiating into the shoulder, arm, or hand.

Headache: Some people experience headaches, dizziness, or arm weakness with cervical herniation.

Remember that not everyone with a herniated disc experiences symptoms. In some cases, the herniation may be discovered incidentally during imaging for another issue.

Gradually Reload the Spine

Okay, so I’ve spoken of not placing a heavy load on your back when you have a herniated disc.

Plus, it’s important to maintain a neutral spine.

Additionally, I would also avoid any overhead pressing exercises, as well as conventional squats and deadlifts.

Basically, overhead pressing does place stress on the spine and there is a tendency to arch the lower back.

This is also why I feel it’s fine to front squat with a herniated disc.

But, once more, this comes down to how bad both the pain and injury is.

With that being said, you can certainly perform certain exercises that allow you to gradually reload the spine.

In fact, this is something I would suggest for everyone who has a herniated disc, and something you should do prior to trying front squats.

What you’re specifically looking to do is to perform spinal stabilisation exercises.

This will involve training the antagonistic muscles of the core.

More specifically, the abs and glutes, as well as the hip flexors and lower back.

Furthermore, it also makes sense to perform stretches that gently extend the lower back.

These types of stretches can actually relieve pain, and may even help to realign your discs.

As an example, bird dogs and dead bugs are a fantastic way to use bodyweight exercises to gently place load on the spine.

Additionally, they will not only stabilise and strengthen the target muscles, they can also provide much relief for pain.

You can actually check out this fantastic article by Kenneth Leung.

Kenneth will walk you through your first month of stabilising and strengthening exercises.

Once you’ve got through these, regardless of how serious the injury or pain has been, you’re then ready to start front squatting.

The Front Squat is Just as Good as The Back Squat

Ronnie Coleman: "I tore my disc in 1997, but I didn't let it stop me. I learned to train around it, and I still won Mr. Olympia eight times after that. It's all about listening to your body, finding exercises that work for you, and not being afraid to adjust your routine."

I honestly believe that most people don’t front squat anywhere near as much as they should.

And by this I mean that you should be regularly front squatting whether you are recovering from a herniated disc or not.

So, even as someone who is the picture of health, the front squat should definitely form part of your training routine.

Most of us typically view the back squat as the best lower body exercise.

And therefore in order to train our lower body we all seem to perform the barbell back squat.

The front squat is often avoided because you can’t lift as much weight, and we view it as much more of a quadricep exercise.

In fact, most people wrongly assume that you are working completely different muscles when you back squat and front squat.

Now, while you may certainly “feel” the two exercises more in different areas of the body, they’re not actually as dissimilar as you may think.

Basically, a squat is a squat, irrespective of which variation you use.

So, in effect, the exact same muscles will be activated and trained regardless of where you place a barbell, dumbbell, or any other piece of equipment.

You must remember that the squat is a natural human movement pattern, and therefore it will always stimulate the same muscles.

Therefore, even if you feel front squats more in your quads, it is still working the glutes and hamstrings too.

The main difference being is that you’ll generally have to perform front squats with a lighter weight, foot placement is slightly narrower, and most importantly, you can maintain a neutral spine.

If you think about it, you can’t lean forward in the front squat in the same way you would with the back squat, as the weight would simply fall off the front of your shoulders.

And this is why you can front squat with a herniated disc.

However, I will repeat once more, this does very much depend on the level of herniation and the pain you’re currently experiencing.

As always, if you’re in extreme pain, ensure you speak to your GP, while recovering and placing as little stress as possible on the affected area.

Exercise in General With a Herniated Disc

I want to explore exercising with a herniated disc in more detail now.

Here’s a look at the most important factors.

Herniated Disc Severity Matters

Herniated discs vary in severity, and the “best” exercises depend on your specific case. 

Here’s a breakdown:

Mild Herniation: Gentle stretching, core strengthening, and low-impact activities like swimming and walking can often help manage pain and promote healing.

Moderate-Severe Herniation: You may need a more individualized approach with specific exercises prescribed by a physical therapist. Focus on maintaining core strength, improving flexibility, and minimizing pain-triggering movements.

A Deeper Look into Exercise Categories

Stretching & Mobility

  • Cat-Cow Pose: Improves spinal flexibility and decompression.
  • Knees to Chest: Releases tension in the lower back and stretches the hamstrings.
  • Gentle Side Bends: Lengthens the spine and eases tension in the intercostal muscles.

Core Strengthening

  • Plank Variations: Different plank variations (high, low, side) target various core muscles.
  • Bird-Dog: Strengthens core and stabilizes the spine.
  • Dead Bug: Improves core stability and coordination.

Low-Impact Cardio

  • Swimming: Provides exercise without stressing the spine.
  • Walking: Gentle walking promotes circulation and eases stiffness.
  • Elliptical Trainer: Low-impact option simulating walking or running.

Strength Training (Moderate and above)

  • Front Squats (with modification if needed): As I’ve mentioned, front squats are much safer than back squats for some, but proper form is crucial.
  • Wall Sits: Targets core and leg muscles without compromising the spine.
  • Light Dumbbell Lunges: Strengthens legs and core with controlled movements.

Points to Remember

  • Start slow and gradually increase intensity.
  • Listen to your body and stop if you experience pain.
  • Maintain proper form and technique throughout every exercise.
  • Use modifications when needed to minimize stress on the disc.
  • Warm up before and cool down after each workout.

Beyond Exercises

  • Maintain good posture throughout the day.
  • Avoid heavy lifting and activities that exacerbate pain.
  • Manage stress through relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation.
  • Consider working with a pain management specialist for additional support.

Bonus Tips

  • Heat therapy can help relieve muscle tension and pain.
  • Ice packs can reduce inflammation after exercise.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce stress on the spine.

Finding the best exercises for a herniated disc requires a customized approach based on your specific condition and pain levels. 

Always prioritize safety and consult a healthcare professional for guidance. 

Listen to your body and adjust your routine as needed.

Remember, consistent effort and a focus on overall well-being are key to managing your herniated disc and reclaiming your active lifestyle

Final Thoughts

So, I hope you understand that you can front squat with a herniated disc.

With that be said, this will largely depend on how bad the actual herniation is, as well as how much pain you’re experiencing.

The main thing about a herniated disc is that you don’t want to be loading weight on your back.

Plus, you should also avoid bending or rounding your lower back while holding a weighted load.

So, this typically rules out back squats, deadlifts, and even overhead pressing.

However, when it comes to the front squat, you’ll remain upright and be able to maintain a neutral spine.

Are you struggling with front squats in general, even when in good health?

If so, check out what I have to say about front squats hurting your upper back.

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